Eric Gairy: Working Class Hero
“On 19th February, widespread strikes began, and there have been many acts of
intimation and sabotage .An emergency order was made and two of the
leaders of the strike [Eric Gairy and Gascoigne Blaize-ct] were detained”
-The Secretary of the State for the Colonies, James Griffiths, responding to Mr. Eden.
Grenada Riots, HC Deb 26 February 1951 vo. l 484 cc 1748-50
Grenada’s first general strike tolled on the early morning of February 19, 1951 and ran for four tempestuous weeks. The so-called “Sky Red” days transformed long-suffering “labourers” into trade union militants, shoved a spice-scented island into high drama and debates in the imperial Parliament; and made a hero of a 29 -year-old” firebrand” named Eric Gairy.
Gairy’s heroic status was proclaimed-perhaps for the very first time in print-in Archibald W. Singham’s 1968 sociological study titled “The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity“. The colonial polity was the pith- helmeted structure which at the top seated the Governor/ Administrator and other high colonial officials; its basement was reserved for the sweated mass-Gairy’s “little people”.
Gairy was a son of the little people. He was dark-skinned. He was bright and ambitious. Such attributes in a black man were cause of significant turmoil at the apex of Grenada’s colour-coded pyramid.
The local boss of the colonial society and Governor of the Windward Islands, Brigadier Sir Robert Arundell, expressed his unease in a note to his superiors in London. The note of March 11, 1951 observes in part:
“Gairy, an egoist, ambitious for power and with an inferiority complex apparently
because of his dark colour.”
Perhaps Gairy did have an inferiority complex, but was this any surprise in a place that consigned blackness to the bottom of its social ladder?
Governor Arundell, shackled by his superiority complex, could not abide Gairy’s challenges to the King’s white administration in which class and colour colluded to create a nearly impregnable wall in the way of black-skinned “natives”. American economist Simon Rottenberg saw that wall during his 1952 visit to Grenada [see Economic Development and Cultural Change, December 1952, a journal of the Research Center in Economic Development and Cultural Change of the University of Chicago]:
“Employers are a social class. Class values and class interests intervene in labor relations and complicate the relationships of workers and employers ….. The stratification of society into classes in Grenada is more rigid than in more developed economies and opportunities for mobility between classes more limited….Class status is, in part, a function of race”.
Rottenberg continues: “In such a system, violence is done to planter class values if workers lay claim to equality in the bargaining process, if workers share in the making of economic decisions, and if their bargaining representatives are, like themselves, black and lower class”
Gairy challenged a rigid race/class system. His challenge was by no means that of a programmatic revolutionary; he was at best a rebel and history shows that rebels favor spontaneity. They tend also to be prickly and highly self-centered. The Rebel fights injustice and inequality.
“The spirit of rebellion exists where a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities”, said Albert Camus. It is interesting that Camus’ “The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt”, was first published in 1951, the year of the Gairy-led answer to Massa`s slavery in the hush-hush.
And 1951 saw the strangest thing under Britain’s imperial sun – the steel band struck England, beating out the rhythms of rebellion: the creativity of a colonized people colonized the colonizer.
Back in Grenada Eric Gairy drove a steel band through an opponent’s political meeting and for this act of “hooliganism” he suffered the loss of his right to vote for five years. This very hard sentence earned much sympathy- enough to rally the Leader’s base and giving him the elections of 1961. Headline, No Boast: Gairy Beats Pan and Beats the Bourgeoisie in Electoral Battle.
The rebel lives for challenges and confrontation.
Rebel Gairy sought better wages and better conditions for the poor workers- mere” hands” in language of the bosses. He demanded the respect he thought owed to a man of his caliber, a one that spoke “the king’s English” and a loyal subject who led his public meetings with the singing of the “God save our king”. Archie W. Singham [see Singham’s Hero in the Crowd] addresses the psychology of the leader-hero in a colonial polity. Singham writes:
“No matter how radical their stated goals may appear, the leaders are seldom emancipated enough themselves to really want to see the social structure drastically changed, and particularly the patterns of authoritarianism. They tend to be much more concerned with proving their own capabilities to run the existing system, and hence their right to membership in the elite.”
Elsewhere, Singham writes: “… The colonized individual continues to imitate, not only because it is necessary for the advancement of his career but because also the authoritarian personality produced by colonialism encourages imitation rather than creativity”.
But flaws do not deny the title of “Hero.”
“Heroes are not required to be altruistic, or honest, or even competent. They are required to inspire confidence and to appear, not good, necessarily, but great”, writes Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
Hughes-Hallett continues: “virtue is not a necessary qualification for heroic status: a hero is not a model.”
In 1951 Grenada`s agricultural workers asserted- for the first time- a collective identity. The Grenada Manual and Mental Workers` Union and the Gairy-led Grenada United Labour Party were the key expressions of that group identity.
Caldwell Taylor was founder and first president-general of the Grenada’s Agricultural and General Workers` Union.
©2/19/2015 Caldwell Taylor